Last season’s run to the Europa League final was thrilling for everyone involved with the club, from the players to the casual observer. Ajax had their long overdue moment in the spotlight, but fell just short of European glory – and at what cost? Before I get into it, I want to preface by saying I enjoyed that run as much as, if not more, than anyone. It was equal parts magical, thrilling, heart-wrenching and proud. I’m still waiting for the Disney movie to be made. That being said, a shift in focus is needed this season. Following their defeat – to hell with the away goals rule – to Nice on away goals, Ajax will miss out on the Champions League for a third successive season. It’s about time they made it back. Back to where they belong.
The Eredivisie campaign took a back seat at multiple points last season, and while the reward greatly outweighed the risk at the time, it wound up costing Ajax dearly. A memorable 2016/17 season ended without a trophy, while rivals Feyenoord returned to the summit of Dutch football for the first time since 1999, adding insult to injury. It has been three seasons since the Amsterdammers have topped the Eredivisie, following a string of four successive titles from 2011-2014, and the drought needs to end.
There’s no sidestepping the fact that Ajax’s campaign got off to a heart-breaking start this season with the tragic end of Abdelhak Nouri’s once-promising career, of which the consequences stretch far greater than football. In fact, when discussing Nouri, football becomes irrelevant – a subtle distraction from the bitter reality. It is a tragedy that has and will continue to affect this club for the duration of the season and beyond. Nouri lived and breathed Ajax. An Amsterdammer through and through, Appie lived every waking moment for the logo on his shirt – and while his life-altering injury puts football into perspective, everyone who had the pleasure of making Nouri’s acquaintance knows he would want nothing more than for Ajax to return to the top of Dutch football. Every season the title represents a crowning moment for the club and a place in the Champions League. Not this one. This title, which would be the 34th for the club – the same number dawned on Appie’s jersey – represents the dedication of his footballing career. First place has never meant so much.
? A stirring applause for Nouri in the 34th minute of the game. #ajanic#StayStrongAppie pic.twitter.com/T8LkQy6Na3
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) 2 augustus 2017
What needs to happen
- Place priority on league matches: Focus has to be on winning week in, week out in the Eredivisie. If that means fielding a weaker side in the Europa League, should Ajax reach the group stage of that competition, then so be it. There’s a certain romanticism attached to Ajax in European football, but competing in the Europa League every year just doesn’t cut it. The simplest route to the Champions League is through winning the domestic title – CL qualification has not been kind to Ajax. By putting the onus on league matches, Ajax have to be considered title favourites heading into the start of the season.
- No more departures: Interest surrounding Davinson Sanchez and Kasper Dolberg remains high, while clubs have also come calling for Andre Onana, Joel Veltman, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech and Amin Younes. Veltman was handed the captaincy and just penned a new deal, while Ziyech, De Ligt and Dolberg have expressed their desire to remain in Amsterdam for another season. Sanchez is the biggest worry at this point in the transfer window. Ajax are already struggling for depth in defence, and can ill-afford to lose their most valuable player so close to the start of the new season. Sanchez is irreplaceable and Marc Overmars will have to be stern to keep the Colombian centre-half in Amsterdam for the year, a task which only grew harder following their exit from the Champions League.
That’s it. Seriously. They could use another winger, and perhaps a bit more depth in defence, but keeping their squad intact and focussing on the league should be enough for them to return to glory in the Eredivise, and here’s why…
As reigning champions, Feyenoord’s bid to repeat has to be taken seriously. That being said, it will prove to be a lot tougher on the club this time around, given the loss of a few key members of their title-winning campaign, as well as their participation in the Champions League. Feyenoord were able to negotiate playing in Europe last season while maintaining their focus on the league, but the Champions League is a whole other monster. Giovanni van Bronckhorst was able to rotate his squad in the Europa League last season, but will not have the same luxury in 2017/18, as they have a responsibility to represent themselves and Dutch football to the best of their abilities in Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
To make matters worse, De club aan de Maas has to deal with the departures of a number of core players from last season. Terence Kongolo has exchanged Rotterdam for Monaco, Rick Karsdorp has moved to the Italian capital, Dirk Kuyt has exchanged his football boots for a fishing rod and Eljero Elia was basically shipped off to Turkey for free. Reinforcements have already been arranged, but those are some big shoes to fill for newcomers Steven Berghuis, Ridgeciano Haps, Jeremiah St. Juste, Sofyan Amrabat and Jean-Paul Boetius. St. Juste, a capable defender in his own right, is still a class below Kongolo. Karsdorp still has not been replaced, unless Van Bronckhorst decides to move Haps or Miquel Nelom to foreign territory on the right side of defence – and even then, Karsdorp was head over heels the best right-back in the Eredivisie last season, and remains first-choice at the position for the national side. Berghuis should prove a slight upgrade over Elia, and while Boetius makes his Rotterdam return, there’s no replacing the unbridled passion and leadership Kuyt provided for this side. Expectations surrounding Boetius should also be rather low after he failed to impress in stints with Basel and Genk.
Tiki taka in Amsterdam yesterday. #ajafey #ajax [@MeesOomens] pic.twitter.com/kemXJIYgGM
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) 3 april 2017
Assuming they are able to fend off interest in striker Nicolai Jorgensen, Feyenoord’s attack should be firing on all cylinders again in 2017/18, and while this is still a very sound football team, there are holes which have not been addressed. Depth could prove to be an issue for them as they aim to negotiate a congested fixture list from September to December. Options are slim and unpredictable outside of their first-choice midfielders and attackers. One or two injuries and they will find themselves struggling for reinforcements. It has been 14 years since Feyenoord competed in the Champions League group stage, and the toll it takes on them in the first months of the season should be apparent, both mentally and physically. The Eredivisie schedule does them no favours, either. Their six Champions League group matches are followed by tough away fixtures, away to PSV, AZ, Den Haag, Groningen and Utrecht, and home to Ajax. All difficult fixtures in their own regard, they become that much tougher with the quick turnaround from Tuesday/Wednesday to Saturday/Sunday. A few defeats trickled in there and they could dig quite a hole for their title defence in the first half of the season.
Climbing down the table, PSV are simply a class below Ajax. They proved it last season, and this season is shaping up to be even worse for them. The Eindhoven outfit lack the creativity in midfield and scoring up front to be taken seriously as a title contender. Their numerous flaws were exposed in their simply abysmal display in their Europa League tie with Osijek, and to make matters worse, their European exit was swiftly followed by the departure of midfielder Davy Propper to Brighton and Hove Albion. The 25-year-old was a fixture in PSV’s midfield last season, appearing in all 34 league matches, seven more than anyone else in the position, scoring six goals and providing another eight assists. He follows Andres Guardado, Hector Moreno and Jetro Willems, all core members of the squad, out the door. The quartet combined for 188 league appearances, 17 goals and 21 assists in 2016/17. They have not been appropriately replaced, either. Hirving Lozano figures to be a stout addition but, as a winger, he doesn’t fill the glaring void in midfield. Neither does centre-half Derrick Luckassen, arriving from AZ.
Wonderful long ball by Ziyech ⏩ Tremendous first touch from Kluivert. #ajax #psvaja pic.twitter.com/ItHqjM3lmG
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) 24 april 2017
Phillip Cocu still has three weeks to add to his squad, but the possibility of more departures looms following their early exit from European competition. Cocu’s influence has waned, his tactics have become predictable and his players are lacking motivation, problems only compounded by their appalling start to the campaign. This squad simply does not have the makeup of a side capable of winning the title this season, lacking the class and depth to make a run at a third title in four years.
2017/18 Eredivisie predictions
5. AZ Alkmaar
6. FC Utrecht
7. SC Heerenveen
8. Heracles Almelo
9. FC Groningen
10. ADO Den Haag
11. Willem II
12. NAC Breda
13. FC Twente
14. VVV Venlo
15. PEC Zwolle
17. Sparta Rotterdam
18. Roda JC
1. Kasper Dolberg
2. Wout Weghorst
3. Samuel Armenteros
4. Nicolai Jorgensen
5. Vito van Crooij
6. Reza Ghoochannejhad
7. Mimoun Mahi
8. Luc Castaignos
9. Tom Boere
10. Thierry Ambrose